The target all winter was the Boston Marathon, so 90-100 mile weeks and key sessions and bi-weekly long runs with one week per week 15-20 miles. All went well-ish.
Come Late March I was feeling OK and starting to knock out longer runs at a decent pace but the winter was harsh. Even in the Mid-Atlantic States we had a bad winter, not lots of snow, just bad sequences. Snow, thaw, freeze; or freezing rain.
I was asked to join a new trail running team Mountain Peak Fitness (MPF) / Red Newt Racing (RNR). I knew of RNR through Ian Golden who had organized the USATF 50 mile trail championships last year and had heard of MPF via Ben Nephew’s various race & FKT reports.
Whilst still focused on Boston I was suddenly incorporated into a world of weekends away, snowshoeing, mountain races and other distractions…
Cut to early April and I’m teaching in a school and hid behind desks in a lock down with some kid pissing in a bottle in the corner… $80 a day to deal with that shit, suddenly I get an email that I’m in the GB Team for the World Trail Champs (55 mile 16,000ft ascent) in 7 weeks. So whilst getting the kids to just sit whilst police charge around corridors I’m planning...
The first thing is Boston is out, Breakneck Trail Marathon is in. I email Ian and within minutes Ian offers me a spot.
Next the kid passes me the piss filled bottle.. I’m sure Beckham and Rooney had similar issues when called up for cap No. 2….
I felt I was fit but Breakneck would be a step up from anything I’d experienced recently. Advertised as Breakneck Marathon it was actually going to be the best part of 50k with 10,000 feet of climbing on technical trails. I looked at the entry list and it looked like it would be a hard day with fellow MPF RNR teammates Ben Nephew, Ryan Welts, Carlo Agostinetto and also Dennis Mikhaylove.
By chance I was in Boston the week before the race so caught up with Ben for a 3 hour run, which turned into a 2:45 run with a strong finish and Ben seemed strong. As a multiple time US international, winner of many big races and holder of many FKT’s I knew he’d be the main competition but having hiked with Ryan in the whites he seemed as strong as an oxe on the hills and I thought the steep ascents and descents of Breakneck would suit him, then there was Carlo who I didn’t really know but he’d just ran a 1:13 half so I knew he was in good shape. I’d never met Dennis but he’d just attempted a 12-hour world record on a treadmill and has a strong reputation but also a reputation for going out hard.
Gwen and I drove up the night before and camped at the race start which meant the pre-race was pretty much stress free. Ian Golden is an experienced RD and everything was going smoothly. We started at 7 am and the pace was steady as we climbed the initial slopes. I’d had a cold 3 weeks ago and although I feel fine I’m still hacking up and early on I felt terrible and my breathing was labored. I sat in with Ben and then a guy Mike pushed on ahead and soon Dennis, Carlo and Ryan were behind me. I backed off and relaxed and tried to let the early miles pass. I was reluctant to get involved at the front so early on and was hoping a few would duel it out and take their legs out but it all seemed pretty sensible. Mike dropped away after one of the descents and the five of us all seemed in good shape… a Russian, a Brit, an Italian (an actual proper one… and to be fair he looks the part) and 2 American’s battling it out..
With the winter being like it has I don’t think anyone knew quite how fit they were; Ryan had spent all winter snow-shoeing, Ben had been trying to survive the Boston snows and Carlo and I had been on the roads. My aim was just to save the legs, keep it easy and have a steady solid effort. Normally I’d have been more confident putting in a hard push to try and break the group but after so little time in the hills I was just trying to save the legs and stay with them as long as I could. My worry was my core/hip flexors, running on the roads you just don’t work your core like you do in the mountains so I had concerns about how I would hold up after 3+ hours of racing.
The first 10k was pretty uneventful and we hit the first aid station around 6-5 miles in as one group and climbed Breakneck. This is a steep scrambling climb with great views down the Hudson. I got chatting to Ryan here, and the pace was pretty steady which suited me as it was the steep walking climbs that are alien to me where I live now. At the summit as we started to descend Ian Golden met us to get some feedback on the route. It really is a stunning route, easily the most scenic interesting race I have done in the US so far. The descent was finally fast running and we started to pick up the pace and I just stuck behind Ryan and Ben as Dennis strode on just ahead. At the base we started a long climb and whilst not aiming to push I opened up a bit of a lead as we climbed and felt great so I was getting confident this was going to be a good race. The sun was now starting to get up and I generally cope OK in heat so I was pretty happy.
As we descended to the next food station Dennis and Ryan got back at me and Ben and Carlo were still close. The race was going well, on gradual climbs I was coping well, on the steep ascents and descents I was at least holding my own so pushing 20k in all was good.
Soon enough we all hit the 25k point back at the start and grabbed food. Carlo and Dennis set off quick, Ryan and Ben now seemed to be struggling and I took while to get sorted but felt increasingly confident of having a good day. As I climbed back out I caught Ben pretty quick and passed him and he didn’t seem too good, soon enough Dennis was next and then finally I caught Carlo and moved into the lead as we scrambled steeply up Beacon. Pushing 20 miles in I slowly seemed to open up a lead but on this 7+ mile section of no aid stations I’d finished my 500mls of water before the top of the scramble and soon enough I was starting to struggle. I kept glancing back and Carlo was close so I kept it steady and soon enough seemed to be truly on my own and I felt like I may have the race sewn up. It was a false dawn almost 4 hours in and I hear foot steps and to be honest I was surprised it was Ben, and more surprised that he looked good.
For a good 90 minutes we were never more than 10m apart. I thought Ben may shoot past as we kept descending but he seemed happy just sat behind me which I was thankful for, as I wasn’t sure I had much of a response in me if he wanted to up the pace, and as I was desperate for water I kept the pace steadily hard but the aid station never came, we’d descend, climb, descend, climb.. finally we saw Joe Azze and Scottie from MPF RNR taking pictures and they said the aid station was close.
We both spent a few minutes here pouring fluids in and Ian gave us some ice to try to cool down with. Having ran a solid pace I was pretty confident it was just a two way battle from now on in but within a few hundred meters there’s Carlo and barely 100m back there is Ryan and both look good. At most we had a 5 minute gap with a good 5 hilly miles to go and with our bodies starting to cramp all could yet change. As we climbed Beacon again Ben seemed stronger and was able to run where I could walk and seemed to pull away but suddenly he slowed and I was able to get back to him.
The trails now improved and the running was better, which meant a quicker pace. Already I was out of water again but tried unsuccessfully to open up a gap on Ben. I wasn’t sure how much to push as I didn’t know if we had another climb or how this race finished so just kept it comfortably hard and try to keep in touch with Ben. As we hit the summit I took a wrong line and Ben called me back but got back in the lead. We now descended the steep scramble down Beacon passing runners who were coming up it. I was trying to hold on to Ben but had constant twinges of cramp. I was trying to keep close to Ben, so close I was almost jumping on to his hands as we bounded down Beacon. As the terrain got more runnable Ben started to up the pace and I sat in behind.
We were now well under 2 miles to go of mainly good running with a few minor climbs so could start to push. I was trying to just sit behind Ben as I was still feeling the cramps but also, despite the fairly runnable terrain we were running on loose rocks covered in leaves and I was trying to remind myself this was a training race and the aim was just a hard run and shouldn’t risk injury.
The pace remained fairly hard but not uncomfortable as we made the final curve and left the woods, we were now in the final mile and the surface improved and with it Ben picked up the pace. We both struggled up two minor hills, Ben was hurting but so was I, I kept trying to draw level but he seemed to always find another yard. As we left the jeep track for the last time Ben made it clear that he meant business.. the Bumbag was cast into the trees and he again picked up the pace. We were now inside the last 0.2 miles and in an all out spring after 5 plus hours of hard running, leaping fallen branches, Ben was shouting out to a 25k runner to stand aside, thankfully he finally heard and stepped clear as we bounded by and I tried one last kick and felt I may have a yard but Ben went again and as we descended the grassy slopes I knew he had me and he finished 2 seconds ahead in 5:12:22.
It was a bittersweet feeling at the end. My aim had been achieved, I’d had a steady hard run and felt good. I’d not suffered as much as I thought I would. Could I have pushed more early on? Possibly, but I think we were all in a similar spot with not knowing quite how ready we were for such a hard race. I can’t think of many races that I have found so enjoyable and I’d enjoyed the competition with Ben, Carlo, Ryan and Dennis. The rest of the day was spent hanging around the finish area with new teammates and getting to know more people.
It was a good day for the new team, with Ben, myself, Carlo and Ryan filling the top 4 spots with less than 15 minutes between us. And Ryan’s wife Kristina taking the women’s win (video). It was quite surprising that despite our vastly different training over the winter we were all so close on the day. Carlo is pretty new to trail running and will certainly be one to watch in the future..
A few days on and I’m pretty happy. The next day I felt fine so had a 4 hour hike to see some of the route at an enjoyable pace and then had a light run, Monday was less good but slowly I’m back to decent mileage so feel I recovered well which is a sign I’m in decent shape with the Worlds now 6 weeks off.
I’m really looking forwards to a good summer racing and getting to know the team more.
Thanks to Ian Golden, Joe and Elizabeth Azze for putting together the team, it's a great mix of experience, abilities and personalities and we all seem to naturally hit it off; and Ian and all those involved with the race. This was the inaugural year, it's a great course and will be is a classic addition showcasing what the area has to offer.